The first scene will often determine whether the reader will continue to read a book and indeed, the first scene may determine whether the reader buys the book.
If the author gets the first scene right, the reader will be dragged into the book. Not just that, but the reader will be enthused to keep flipping pages. If the author gets the first scene wrong, the reader may stop reading, or if they continue, they will be cautious and looking for fault.
A First Scene That Works
Rather than set out what I think a gripping first scene needs, let me suggest an opening scene that I think works really well: The Midnight Line by Lee Child, his Jack Reacher novel from 2017. You can read the first scene as an extract on Amazon (and at any other online vendor that offers previews).
For clarity, this email isn’t a comment on, or a review of the complete book. I’m just pointing at the first scene of this book as an example of a great first scene.
Now let me tell you what I think works (and why you should read this first scene).
The Midnight Line
Reacher finds the woman he has spent the last three days with has left. His reaction is not to cry, but to leave town—to get on the first bus, irrespective of where the bus is heading. Why? Because rules are rules.
If you’ve read any of Child’s Reacher books, you will know Reacher. But if you haven’t, the first few paragraphs of the scene give some key information about the man:
- A woman leaves—he lets her go and carries on with his life. There is no looking back and no attempt to stop her.
- He has a routine—a set of rules—he gets on the first bus, irrespective.
We’re not past the second page and we have an intriguing character. We have someone that already, as a reader, I want to know more about (I’ve read a good number of Reacher novels and I was still hooked by the opening paragraphs here).
Reacher follows his rules without question. As Reacher catches a bus we learn about his core principles and we can presume these principles will be significant in the context of the story.
We don’t know if these principles are a force for good or for bad, and we don’t know if Reacher is a good guy or a bad guy from this first chapter (although if you’ve read any Reacher book, you will know the answer: Reacher’s a good guy and it is the adherence to his principles that makes him a good guy in the reader’s eyes).
When the bus reaches a rest stop, Reacher walks past a pawn shop and sees a West Point class ring which piques his curiosity. West Point, the United States Military Academy, is a tough place—anyone who has graduated will have worked hard and a class ring would have been an object of pride. Such a class ring would not have been given up lightly.
Reacher understands this abnormality. We follow his curiosity—he wants to know what has happened for someone to give up their class ring, and so do we.
And that is the end of the first scene in The Midnight Line. At this point, we have:
- Reacher—an engaging character
- a situation—a pawned West Point class ring
But more than that, the two are slotted together—Reacher understands that something dreadful must have happened for the owner to be parted from the ring. So not only are Reacher and the ring slotted together, but something has changed for Reacher—he has become curious/concerned and wants to know more about the circumstances in which the owner and ring were separated.
It is at this point that the scene ends and the reader can take a deep breath before jumping into the rest of the book.
I turned straight to the next page.
That’s me for October. I’ll be back in November.
Until then, if you haven’t already read it, check out the first chapter of The Midnight Line.
All the best